Flip over to Google right quick and search “plane crashes into residential area.” Go ahead. I’ll wait.
One of the top results you’ll find is the August 2013 story of a fiery crash involving a general aviation aircraft that slammed into a house in a suburban Connecticut neighborhood. The pilot of that craft, Bill Henningsgaard, and his son, Maxwell, were flying around to visit colleges that Maxwell might attend after graduating high school.
The crash killed Bill and Maxwell Henningsgaard. It also killed two children, ages 1 and 13, who were in the house into which Henningsgaard’s plane crashed.
You’ll also find that, on July 16 of this year, a 73-year-old pilot survived when his single-engine plane crashed in the back yard of a home in a residential area of Hillsborough, N.J. His plane was an amateur-built model.
“It’s pretty freaky being a homeowner living where I live, knowing that could have ended up being my house,” Anthony Quintano, who lives near the crash site, told The Star Ledger. Quintano used to live near Teterboro Airport, also in New Jersey, and said he’d seen crashes there as well. “It’s always nerve wracking living near some kind of airport, especially with small planes, which seem to crash a lot more.”
Quintano’s observation isn’t far off the mark. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 94 percent of the fatal aviation accidents that occurred in 2011 involved a category of aircraft called “general aviation.”
General aviation includes high-powered, professionally piloted corporate jets like the Gulfstream IV (one of which crashed at a general aviation airport near Boston in June of this year, killing seven). It also includes small, privately-owned planes flown by amateur pilots. Some of these planes are built by amateurs from kits or pieced together from scrap and spare parts salvaged from junkyards and hobby shops.
By comparison, commercial aviation — those massive jumbo jets most people think about when they consider air travel — accounted for exactly zero deaths in 2011. According to the NTSB, general aviation aircraft average about seven accidents per 100,000 flight hours, while commercial airlines average 0.16 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.
In fact, from 2008 to 2012, there were more than 7,500 general aviation crashes in the United States. A great many of them are fatal, not only for the pilots who willingly took their lives in their own hands or the passengers who willingly sought the thrill of going up in a small plane, but also for unsuspecting people on the ground. Just this week, a pilot crash-landed his plane on a Florida beach, killing a 36-year-old U.S. Army sergeant and his 9-year-old daughter. That pilot, flying a small plane built in 1972, radioed to the airport that he was having trouble. Rather than ditching in the ocean and losing his precious plane, he elected to land on the beach — where there were people — which claimed two lives even as he and his passenger walked away without injury.
(There is absolutely an economic angle to these circumstances, too. Most general aviation plane crashes occur in close proximity to airports. Those who have money to invest in their housing often don’t live near airports, landfills, wastewater plants, jails, etc. So the people in greatest risk of losing their home to a plane crash also are those least likely to participate in the hobby of general aviation themselves.)
These pilots, who have the money to spend on aircraft and fuel for pleasure flights (when’s the last time you casually priced buying your own airplane?) are subject to far looser regulations than commercial aviation. So loose, in fact, that they’re not even required to carry liability insurance on their aircraft.
Hence the case of a Palm Coast, Fla. woman who lost her home when a small plane crashed into it. The woman escaped the burning home through a window. The crash killed the pilot, Michael Anders, and his two passengers. But because Anders was not required to carry — and elected not to spend the money to carry — liability insurance on his pleasure plane, the woman who was unfortunate enough to own a home in Anders’ flight path now has no way to rebuild her home or recover from the physical and psychological injuries she suffered in the crash. In fact, even though Anders could evidently afford a plane, his estate itself was insolvent so the woman has absolutely no recourse.
Requiring liability insurance could radically reshape general aviation. Insurers can set and more rigorously enforce requirements that pilots have more flight training before taking off on their own — including a set number of hours in the particular aircraft he or she is piloting. They can also require inspection of personal aircraft to ensure they are fit to fly. This creates a safer environment not only for the pilots and passengers, but for terrestrial dwellers like you and me.
Liability insurance also provides some help for people who are the real victims of general aviation crashes (I don’t spend a lot of time weeping for the wealthy pilots who knowingly engage in a hobby that is risky not only for themselves, but have no qualms putting the rest of us in danger as well): the passengers and the people on the ground. Not only is the lady in Palm Coast without a home, but two families lost loved ones who were aboard that aircraft when it crashed, and they, too, will receive no benefits from the crash.
If the Federal Aviation Administration is unwilling to effectively police general aviation — and they’re not, evidenced by a goal they set 15 years ago to reduce the annual number of general aviation crashes and the fact that, over those 15 years, the average number of annual general aviation crashes has remained static — then maybe the insurance industry will do it.
And with any luck, they’ll ground some of these flying cowboys before they can crash and kill even more of us.
After all, if Bill and Maxwell Henningsgaard just drove to colleges like normal people, two children would still be alive and a mother would’ve been spared watching her babies burn alive in the house where they should’ve been safest of all.